After weeks of protests by South African students calling for free tuition, Monday was supposed to be the reopening of regular classes at the University of the Witswatersrand.
But marches by hundreds of protesters showed that a return to normalcy isn’t on the schedule at the campus in Johannesburg.
Members of the “Fees Must Fall” movement entered auditoriums, disrupting classes and intimidating other students, Peter Granitz reported on Morning Edition.
Armored police vehicles arrived on campus in front of the Great Hall at Wits University, as Witswatersrand University is also known, The Associated Press says, and fired water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas on the protesters.
Students threw stones at security guards, the AP says.
Protesters also gathered on the lawn and sang struggle songs from the apartheid era, back before most of them were born, Granitz reports. He explains the protests’ context and consequences:
“Students have been protesting since September 20th, following the education minister’s announcement that universities can raise tuition up to 8 percent. Protests at many universities have been peaceful. But at the University of Cape Town, protesters lobbed petrol bombs. Fire destroyed a library at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. And students at Rhodes University put up burning barricades on campus streets.
“President Jacob Zuma says the damage has cost the government more than $40 million. That’s on top of the $1 billion Zuma says the government absorbed last year after similar protests forced a tuition fee freeze.”
The success of last year’s demonstrations set a precedent, one analyst tells Granitz, and now students will “keep demanding more.”
“The government subsidizes tuition for poorer students, but undergraduate fees can be has high as $5,000 a year,” Granitz says. “That puts it out of reach for many black students. Apartheid ended in 1994, but black South African incomes lag significantly behind those of white South Africans.”
On Monday, some libraries and a large science laboratory at Wits University were vacant as the protests disrupted the scheduled classes, the AP says.
But a university spokeswoman said the school was open for business, despite the interruptions, Reuters reports.
“We urge students and staff to return to classes this week, even if disruptions occur,” the school said in a statement, according to Reuters.
The South African academic year usually wraps up by early November, Granitz says, and it’s unclear whether current students will actually finish by then.